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Wednesday, 27 April 2016


Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936)

In the 1960s, my late mother used to mention her grandparents Franz and Hedwig, and often remarked that theirs were an odd pair of names. For a long time that was all that I knew about them. My late uncle Sven Rindl gave me an ingeniously designed family tree of our Ginsberg family many years ago, and I kept it as a curiosity. It assumed a great significance when, in about 2000, I began to become interested in the history of the families into which I was born. Soon after this, I learnt that Franz was a South African Senator and that he was held in high regard by my mother’s family. After investigating the lives of other members of my extended family, I began including Franz amongst those whom I researched. Several members of the extended Ginsberg family were kind enough to supply me with much interesting material, but at first I was unable to put them together to form a ‘big picture’ of Franz’s life. As I began to do so, I realised that not only was I discovering a great deal about his life, but also about a fascinating and important period during the history of South Africa.

I obtained a British Library Reader’s Ticket, and that was the key to unravelling Franz’s story. My great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) left his birthplace in Prussia in 1880, and shifted to King Williams Town (‘King’) in the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa. He lived there for the rest of his life. The British Library is home to a more or less complete run of one King’s newspapers, the Cape Mercury (the ‘Mercury’). When the newspapers were stored at Colindale, I used to drive there and spend several hours every Saturday morning leafing through the huge bound volumes of the paper. As I did so, fragments of the crumbling paper used to float down off the pages, which I imagine had hardly ever been looked at since they were printed in King and then bound by the library in London. I scoured every page from 1880 onwards looking for mentions of ‘Ginsberg’. Before 1885, there were no mentions of Franz because there was little reason for him to appear in the news. But, from 1885 onward both he and, to a lesser extent, his future brother-in-law the photographer Jakob Rindl began to appear at ever increasing frequency in the pages of the Mercury. For, it was in 1885, that Franz opened his own factory. It made matches. The match factory was followed by an ink factory, and then a candle factory, and later a soap factory.

Mentions of Franz in the Mercury became even more frequent after about 1890, when he entered local politics. First, he was elected a Town Councillor, then the Mayor for a while. Soon, Franz entered national politics, and became elected a Member of the Cape Parliament, a position that he held until 1910 when the Cape Colony and the three other colonies of southern Africa united to become ‘South Africa’. After unification, Franz became King’s member of the newly formed Cape Provincial Council. He remained on this until 1927, when he became the first elected Jewish Senator in South Africa. Franz’s name began appearing in the Mercury with ever increasing frequency until he became a Senator. After his ascent to the exalted position of Senator, he did not disappear from the pages of the Mercury, but mentions of him became less frequent because his civic duties in King occupied less of his time than the affairs of the Senate.

From 1885 onwards, the information that I gleaned from the pages of the Mercury, which is now stored in Yorkshire but made available in the British Library in Kings Cross, gave me a good idea of what Franz and his family were up to. The newspaper entries included detailed reports on the proceedings of the Town Council of King as well as what happened in meetings of other organisations, such as the town’s School Board, in which Franz participated actively for many years. From these reports, I began to build up a picture of how Franz functioned as a politician. The newspapers also included details of his comings and goings as well as a wealth of information about his and his family’s involvement in the life of King.

There are two other important sources of information about Franz, which I consulted. These were the reports of both the Cape Parliament and also of the South African Senate. Both of these publications reported the debates in the two legislative assemblies in great detail. The Cape Parliament reports recorded the debates as reported speech, whereas the Senate was reported more or less verbatim. Therefore, what is reported in the Senate debates is what the speakers actually said, rather than someone else’s summary. In the absence of any known recordings of Franz’s voice, what is preserved in the reports of the Senate’s debates is all that remains of the authentic voice of my great-grandfather.

In addition to the above mentioned, there was a host of other material that I consulted whilst preparing Franz’s biography. Some of this, including much interesting material about Franz’s diamond mining activities in German South West Africa (now ‘Namibia’) and his brother Gustave’s life, were from the National Archives of South Africa. Accessing this material remotely from the UK involved employing locals in South Africa to look up the documents (that I had identified in the archives’ on-line catalogue), and then photographing them to send to me. This was always most satisfactory. Books from the British Library and material sent to me by relatives provided more pieces to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

I have been researching Franz’s life for well over 10 years. Several times I tried to write his biography, but had to give up because although he achieved a great deal in many fields, his story did not seem to me to be of general interest. That was the case before I began looking in detail at what he did and said whilst he was a Member of the Cape Parliament, and then later a Senator in the Parliament of the Union of South Africa.

Franz was a Member of the Cape Parliament between 1905 and 1910. He was a Senator from 1927 until his death in 1936. Between 1910 and 1927, he was involved in provincial, rather than national, politics, representing King on the Cape Provincial Council. During the first 4 decades of the 20th century, much legislation was passed that diminished what few rights the non-Europeans ever possessed. One can safely say that this legislation paved or eased the way towards the establishment of apartheid in 1948.

Arriving in South Africa aged 18, Franz did not have a university education. His father Nathan was an accomplished academic. For religious reasons, as I explain in my book, Nathan had to turn down offers of academic positions in German universities. So, despite not having attended university it is likely that Franz was well-educated when he arrived in South Africa. When he was involved with national politics, he debated with politicians, many of whom had attained a high level of formal university education: lawyers, clerics, and so on. Yet, the reports of the debates in which he was involved demonstrate that Franz was easily able to hold his own with his highly educated colleagues in the Parliament and the Senate.  Always an opponent of the Nationalists, he was able to see through the deviousness and disingenuousness of their arguments. And, being able to do so, he attempted to combat or at least to mitigate the unfair legislation that they were promoting. Sadly, he was one of a few lone voices crying out in the wilderness.

When I began to see what my investigations into Franz’s political life were revealing, I realised that writing about his life would result in something with greater interest than a simple biography. Franz’s biography opens a ‘window’ into the history of the evolution of apartheid.

Prejudice against non-Europeans in South Africa began as soon as the Dutch first dropped anchor in the waters lapping the Cape of Good Hope. During the 19th century, under British rule, things did not improve for the non-Europeans. By the beginning of the 20th century, ensuring the submission of the non-European population became an ever-increasing concern of legislators. The ending of the 2nd Boer war in 1902, and the desire to unify the 2 former Boer republics (the Orange Free State and Transvaal) with the 2 British colonies (Cape Colony and Natal) led to a further reduction in the political status of the non-Europeans. This was because in order to achieve unification, the British felt obliged to acknowledge, or at least not challenge, the firmly held views of the Boers that non-Europeans were to be regarded as inferiors with no rights at all.

Franz’s role in the politics of this interesting era was that of trying to ensure that non-Europeans were fairly treated. However, this is an oversimplification as I explain in my book. His approach was complex, and at times unusual. Trying to explain his activities to today’s readership in the context of his times was one of the challenges of writing his biography. I feel that this is what gives my narrative interest to a wider audience. One reader in South Africa has already written:
Your studious unravelling and compilation of Franz’s remarkable life … gave me a sense of the evolution of our country …”
It is this ‘sense of the evolution’ of modern South Africa that I had hoped to convey when I published my biography of Franz Ginsberg, “Soap to Senate: A German Jew at the dawn of Apartheid.” (By Adam Yamey)

Available on Amazon Kindle and from www.lulu.com (paperback edition) by typing “Soap to Senate” in the appropriate places on these websites.

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